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Best 2000s Musicians: 20 Great Artists Who Defined The Noughties
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List & Guides

Best 2000s Musicians: 20 Great Artists Who Defined The Noughties

From indie-rock scenesters to straight-talking pop divas, the best 2000s musicians lit up the decade by bringing edginess back to the party.

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Facing a challenging era of internet piracy and peer-to-peer file-sharing, the best 2000s musicians had to fight harder than ever to command our attention. After all, when set against the social backdrop of the “war on terror” and the suppression of our civil liberties, providing a soundtrack to the decade was never going to be easy. By turns confrontational and experimental, the best 2000s songs offered a scintillating mix of escapism, outspokenness and candour, crossing a wide range of genres from pop to indie, metal and hip-hop. From Kings Of Leon to Lady Gaga, these are the artists that defined the noughties…

Listen to our Pop playlist here, and check out our best 2000s musicians, below.

20: Biffy Clyro

As much at home playing in front of indie-loving NME types as they are in front of Kerrang!-leaning metalheads at Download Festival, alt-rock trio Biffy Clyro went from scrappy underground guitar-thrashers to beloved BBC Radio 1 favourites thanks to captivating rock albums such as 2007’s Puzzle and 2009’s Mercury Music Prize-nominated Only Revolutions. From the over-the-top bombast of Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies to the far-reaching ascendancy of Mountains, the best Biffy Clyro songs did as much as any others to define the early part of the 21st century. After joining a classic-rock lineage by working with Pink Floyd album cover designer Storm Thorgerson and entering the UK’s public consciousness when their soaring power ballad Many Of Horror (When We Collide) was covered by X Factor winner Matt Cardle, the group finished the decade as one of the best British bands of their time, helping to bring rock’n’roll back from the brink.

Must hear: Mountains

19: Paolo Nutini

Scottish singer-songwriter Paolo Nutini perfectly straddles the line between affable pop balladry and hard-to-attain indie cred. First surfacing in 2005 with his UK No.5 hit Last Request, Nutini has gone on to sell over 4.6 million albums worldwide, with his second album, Sunny Side Up, going six-times platinum. From making a mad dash in Converse with upbeat pop-rock (New Shoes) to channelling King Louie with Jungle Book-indebted swing jazz (Pencil Full Of Dead), he was even championed by Ahmet Ertegun. “He loved New Shoes,” Nutini said of Led Zeppelin’s former label boss. “He walked over and said, ‘Hey, kid, that shoes song… it’s a hit, it’s a hit.’” With an endorsement like that, there’s little arguing with Nutini’s spot on our list of the best 2000s musicians.

Must hear: Last Request

18: Lily Allen

It can’t be overstated just how much Lily Allen changed the face of British pop music in the 2000s. From her funny lyrical takedowns of urban life (Smile, LDN) to her socially-aware explorations of celebrity culture and mass consumerism (The Fear), Lily Allen’s debut album, Alright, Still, and its follow up, It’s Not Me, It’s You, proved that pop music needn’t be vapid or lacking in depth, and Allen paved the way for the likes of Kate Nash and Marina And The Diamonds to follow. With a punk-inspired attitude recalling that of her godfather, Joe Strummer of The Clash, Allen moved emboldened female songwriters to embrace a more modern, discerning lyrical outlook. We need wordsmiths like her more than ever.

Must hear: Smile

17: James Blunt

Among a handful of earnest acoustic-rockers surfacing at the turn of the decade, former British Army soldier James Blunt’s fame was secured with inescapable hits such as You’re Beautiful and Goodbye My Lover. Managing to score himself a No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic, Blunt’s debut album, Back To Bedlam, went on to sell 11 million copies worldwide and gave rise to a legion of heart-on-sleeve singer-songwriters such as Paolo Nutini and James Morrison. Following his breakout success with his second album, All The Lost Souls, Blunt went on to prove that he was far more than a one-hit-wonder – indeed, the best James Blunt songs have conspired to make him one of the most-listened-to British songwriters of the 21st century.

Must hear: You’re Beautiful

16: My Chemical Romance

Fusing the radio-friendly gusto of pop-punk with a gothic theatricality much appreciated by emo kids, My Chemical Romance became one of the biggest rock bands on the planet and went on to sell more than eight million albums worldwide. Somewhat aware that 9/11 had irreparably altered the mood of a generation, the borderline nihilistic, self-eviscerating tone of albums such as 2002’s I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love and 2004’s Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge saw frontman Gerard Way establish himself as a voice for the outsiders. Flush with contenders among the best My Chemical Romance songs, the group’s classic rock-inspired 2006 album, Welcome To The Black Parade, was a concept record influenced by Pink Floyd and Queen. Not only did it establish My Chemical Romance among the best 2000s musicians, but it positioned Gerard Way as the spokesman for disaffected teenagers across the globe.

Must hear: Welcome To The Black Parade

15: The White Stripes

Thanks to the visceral guitar squall of Jack White and the primitive drum clatter of his “big sister” Meg (in actuality, the pair were a divorced couple among the long lineage of bands in relationships), The White Stripes helped garage rock explode back into popularity at the turn of the century. Their signature anthem, Seven Nation Army, will go down in modern rock history for boasting one of the best guitar riffs of all time, while albums such as 2001’s White Blood Cells and 2003’s Elephant were just as epochal. Proving that rock duos could generate just as much noise as a fully-fledged group, The White Stripes opened the door for the likes of The Black Keys and Royal Blood to keep rock’n’roll’s heart beating loud and clear.

Must hear: Seven Nation Army

14: Kings Of Leon

Hailing from Nashville, Tennessee, Kings Of Leon began as hirsute, denim-wearing garage-rockers before evolving into as clean-shaven, boy-band-attractive stadium headliners. Standing out among the glut of post-Strokes indie-rock acts, their 2003 debut album, Youth & Young Manhood, saw the band revive a Southern rock sound with singles such as Molly’s Chambers, and they would eventually reach No.1 in the UK with the lusty roar of Sex On Fire, from their fourth album, Only By The Night. The fact that Kings Of Leon rose above the competition so gloriously is proof that they deserve their spot among the best 2000s musicians.

Must hear: Sex On Fire

13: The Killers

By gifting the world the immortal indie-disco hit Mr Brightside, Las Vegas group The Killers dominated alt-rock at the start of the decade. With that song selling 3.2 million copies to date, the band would go on to electrify festivals with singles such as When You Were Young and Human, combining their new wave and soft-rock influences (Duran Duran, New Order, Dire Straits) with a love of heartfelt blue-collar lyricism by way of Bruce Springsteen. Embraced by the UK’s music fans ever since the release of their debut album, Hot Fuss, The Killers have earned a special place in the nation’s heart so it’s no wonder they continue to be regarded as one of the best 2000s musicians.

Must hear: Mr Brightside

12: The Strokes

As the band that kick-started the “new rock revolution”, The Strokes reawakened people’s enthusiasm for guitar music almost overnight, inspiring a legion of indie-rock bands upon the release of their debut album, Is This It. Immediately making an impression with the driving Tom Petty-esque rocker Last Nite and the serpentine riffage of Reptilia, frontman Julian Casablancas exuded New York City cool and truly set the tone for the indie explosion that followed. In fact, there’s a case to be made for The Strokes being the must influential band of their era – which isn’t something you can say for most groups.

Must hear: Reptilia

11: Amy Winehouse

With her beehive hair and gobby, no-nonsense demeanour, the troubled R&B/soul singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse remains one of the best 2000s female singers by sheer force of her personality as much as for her legendarily soulful voice. From her jazz-indebted debut album, Frank, to her Mark Ronson-produced sophomore record, Back To Black, Winehouse was able to shift the sonic landscape of pop music thanks to her retro infatuation with 60s pop formulae (Back To Black, Valerie), Stax-esque funk (Rehab, You Know I’m No Good) and delicate Billie Holiday-inspired balladry (Love Is A Losing Game). The debt the likes of Adele owe to Amy Winehouse’s musical foresight is all-too-apparent, so it would be nothing short of a crime not to include her on this list of best 2000s musicians.

Must hear: Rehab

10: Arcade Fire

Canadian multi-instrumentalists Arcade Fire have proven themselves among the best 2000s musicians ever since they gave us a baroque spin on indie rock with their debut album, 2004’s Funeral. Recalling the art-rock impetus of David Bowie and Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne, singer Win Butler keenly displayed the ambition of Radiohead in tackling suburban listlessness and addressing worldly concerns, particularly on 2007’s Neon Bible, which delivered a grandiose examination of the pitfalls of organised religion and a media-saturated society defined by warring philosophies and a population numbed by televisual subterfuge. Unflinchingly intelligent and refreshingly literate, Arcade Fire are more than just a band – they were seers.

Must hear: Rebellion (Lies)

9: Radiohead

Given that they released their bold and experimental fourth album, Kid A, in 2000 and revolutionised notions of music commerce in response to illegal file-sharing with the release of 2007’s In Rainbows, it would be a scandal if Radiohead didn’t make this list of the best 2000s musicians. Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Philip Selway soundtracked the decade with lyrical explorations of existential dread (Amnesiac) and the crushing weight of post-millennial politics (Hail To The Thief), all while branching out into electronic subgenres such as IDM and ambient soundscapes. Like a modern-day Pink Floyd with a prophetic vision and a sense of insatiable musical adventurousness, it’s no surprise that Radiohead are among the greatest bands of modern times.

Must hear: Pyramid Song

8: Muse

It’s already obvious that Muse have become legends. With mainman Matt Bellamy’s extravagant guitar solos and his pointed, conspiracy-theory-laced lyrics, Muse were one of the decade’s most iconic live acts – modern-day usurpers of the throne vacated by classic-rock untouchables such as Queen and Pink Floyd. Across 2001’s Origin Of Symmetry, 2003’s Absolution, 2006’s Black Holes And Revelations and 2009’s The Resistance, the group captured the mood of our post-9/11 world with apocalyptic rockers such as Time Is Running Out, and they crafted conceptual masterworks with cosmic themes inspired by sci-fi. Leapfrogging from Bellamy’s classical piano extemporisations to mind-scrambling hard-rock freak-outs, Muse truly deserve to go down in the annals of rock history.

Must hear: Time Is Running Out

7: Arctic Monkeys

Tapping into the same street-smart clout of The Libertines and the angular punky thrash of The Strokes, Sheffield indie-rockers Arctic Monkeys were one of the best British rock bands to rise to prominence in the 2000s. Their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, became the fastest-selling debut in UK history after it shifted over 360,000 copies in its first week, spearheaded by the UK No.1 hits I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor and When The Sun Goes Down. Headlining Glastonbury Festival in 2007 after the release of their second record, Favourite Worst Nightmare, the band would go on to prove their durability by performing a sonic volte-face with 2009’s Humbug, a sultry amble through desert-rock. Kicking up a sandstorm of their own, Arctic Monkeys swept us up in a rock’n’roll tempest that asserted their position among the best 2000s musicians.

Must hear: I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor

6: Lady Gaga

Stepping out of the shadows of New York’s performance-art scene in the late 2000s, electro-pop provocateur Lady Gaga made an immediate commercial impact. Her first two singles, Just Dance and Poker Face, went to No.1 in both the US and UK, and both broke records after being downloaded seven million times in North America alone. Following that with her 2008 debut album, The Fame, Gaga truly rejuvenated the sound of modern pop music. With the pulse-quickening dance-pop of her 2009 single Bad Romance, she set a new standard, influencing everyone from Nicki Minaj to Dua Lipa.

Must hear: Poker Face

5: Linkin Park

Key players in the nu-metal explosion of the early 2000s, Linkin Park expertly fused heavy metal with hip-hop, cherry-topped by singer Chester Bennington’s cathartic vocals and Mike Shinoda’s free-flowing MC skills. The rap-rock dynamism of their 2000 debut album, Hybrid Theory, went on to sell 27 million copies, arguably making it the most momentous rock record since Nirvana’s Nevermind. Inspiring a generation, the best Linkin Park songs, such as One Step Closer, Crawling, Papercut and In The End, ensured the group stood out among the best 2000s musicians. Making an even bigger impact with their next albums, 2003’s Meteora and 2007’s Minutes To Midnight, Linkin Park rose above their contemporaries to become one of the most successful alt-rock groups of all time.

Must hear: In The End

4: Kanye West/Ye

After producing tracks for Jay-Z’s formula-busting 2001 album, The Blueprint, Chicago rapper Kanye West – now formally Ye – broke barriers with his debut record, The College Dropout, in 2004. Bringing a new wave of conscious hip-hop to mainstream rap, West enraptured music lovers with hits that delivered the spiritual sucker-punch of Jesus Walks, the gospel drubbing of Gold Digger and the Curtis Mayfield-sampling heights of Touch The Sky. A magpie genius with boldly eclectic impulses, Ye deserves a spot among the best 2000s musicians for his ability to leap from the Daft Punk-indebted electro-rap of Stronger to the Auto-Tuned R&B of his 2008 album, 808s & Heartbreak, and the abrasive abstractions of 2013’s Yeezus. With his uniquely eccentric vision and crossover appeal for indie hipsters, Ye was undeniably one of the most influential rappers of the decade, and his legacy can still be felt today.

Must hear: Gold Digger

3: Gorillaz

When Blur frontman Damon Albarn released Gorillaz’s debut single, the UK Top 5 hit Clint Eastwood, in 2001, nobody could have anticipated how rapidly this side project – formed in partnership with illustrator Jamie Hewlett – would become his most successful musical venture. Aiming to create a fictional cartoon band to parody what he saw as pop music’s artificiality, Albarn fashioned a genre-hopping vehicle with which he could experiment with hip-hop collaborators while redefining what pop music would sound like in the 21st century. Gorillaz’s 2005 album, Demon Days, was a true masterpiece that included hits such as Feel Good Inc. and DARE, leading Gorillaz to gain further chart success as the most progressive pop outfit ever to exist (or not exist, so to speak…). To date, this “virtual band” have sold over 25 million albums worldwide, and they have now vastly eclipsed their co-creator’s Britpop beginnings by a considerable distance.

Must hear: Feel Good Inc.

2: Eminem

Not only is Eminem one of the best 2000s musicians, he’s also a pop culture phenomenon. With his peroxide-blond Slim Shady persona and his darkly hilarious and controversial lyrics, Eminem’s visceral songs have inspired awe and notoriety in equal measure, from the motivational masterclass of Lose Yourself to the pitch-black narrative storytelling of Stan. While no stranger to pop-rap frivolity (The Real Slim Shady, Without Me), Eminem often wields a poetic depth that borders on literary genius, as well as a turbo-charged mastery of the mic few rappers can rival. A freewheeling talent firing on all cylinders on 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP and it’s follow-up, 2002’s The Eminem Show, Eminem rounded off the decade having sold more than 70 million albums worldwide, easily making him one of the most successful rappers the world has ever seen.

Must hear: Without Me

1: Coldplay

After rising to prominence with the post-Britpop anthem Yellow, in June 2000, Coldplay wasted no time at all in becoming one of the biggest bands of the decade. As their earth-shaking brand of Jeff Buckley-esque indie-folk bloomed to encompass U2-sized arena ambitions with their second album, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, in 2002, songwriter Chris Martin was always hyper-attuned to how a decade reeling from the “war on terror” summoned collective feelings of angst and melancholia. Writing timeless songs to catapult the band to even greater heights with the cosmic synth-rock of 2005’s X&Y and scoring themselves a US No.1 in 2008 with the string-laden baroque-pop stomp of Viva La Vida, Coldplay went on to sell more than 45 million albums by the end of the 2000s, defining the decade more than any other band. That achievement is nothing short of remarkable, and it’s why the group tops our list of the best 2000s musicians.

Must hear: Viva la Vida

Looking for more? Check out our list of the best 2000s songs.

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